In the rural town of Awassa, Ethiopia, donkey carts hauling vegetables or farming equipment over the dusty, dirt roads are a common sight. Less common are books. Many children have never seen one; few have read a book outside a classroom. Even in schools, textbooks are rare. So when Yohannes Gebregeorgis wanted to bring the joy of reading to the outskirts of Addis Ababa, he hit on an idea uniquely suited to the area. Gebregeorgis created the Donkey Mobile Library, a brightly colored cart filled with books and drawn by donkeys.
Gebregeorgis, who returned to his homeland after spending eight years as a librarian in the U.S., leads the Donkey Mobile Library twice a month to the shade of a tree in the town square, where children—and some parents—gather to hear him read. They sit in a circle on small, painted seats he’s brought. “It’s very difficult for kids to get reading material,” says Gebregeorgis, “Most schools don’t have libraries.” Moreover, most Ethiopian children—an estimated 72 percent—have families who can’t afford to send them to school. Gebregeorgis believes ancillary reading is an essential key to education. “Education without reading outside the classroom is like eating food without salt and spice,” he says. “It’s bland.” When his donkey cart arrives, it delivers not only excitement and wonder but tools as fundamental to self-sustainability as those used for harvest.
Gebregeorgis established a publishing arm of his non-profit organization, Ethiopia Reads, and produced Ethiopian folktales in the country’s official language, Amharic. Ethiopia Reads now has eight titles. These books sit on the donkey cart beside familiar English-language classics like Winnie the Pooh and The Wizard of Oz. Book donations from schoolchildren and librarians in the West keep the cart stocked. Other global book-donating organizations such as Biblionef, a Netherlands-based non-profit, contribute to the donkey cart, adding to the “micro-reading” movement in support of small children’s libraries around the world.
The movement often travels on the backs of beasts of burden. In Kenya, camels bring boxes of books to the remote, semi-nomadic people. To villagers in Awassa, the delivery of books has come to resemble a festival, sometimes led by Nigist Helina, “Queen of All Donkeys in Ethiopia.” Gebregeorgis dresses her regally and when she arrives, children come running, cheering, “Long live the queen!”
Gebregeorgis has had such an impact that he’s hitching up more carts. But he wants literacy to become part of daily life in Ethiopia, and that means more permanent solutions are needed. He’s developing as many as 16 school libraries. When Gebregeorgis found that some rural schools were far too small for a library, he engineered the Portable Library Project, a box designed to hold up to 200 books for kids in the first and second grades. “At first. most kids would hold a book upside down,” says Gebregeorgis. “But later they learn how to use it, how to flip the pages and then gradually to read the stories. They are now star readers.”
John Perra | Jan/Feb 2009 issue
Photo: Ethiopia Reads